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Penn State closes regular season with 56-21 victory over Illinois, then decides not to participate in a bowl game

After the Fighting Illini led 21-14 in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions tightened up on defense and scored 42 unanswered points on offense. Jahan Dotson caught TD passes of 75 and 70 yards.

Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) scores a touchdown on a 75-yard pass in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) scores a touchdown on a 75-yard pass in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The final four weeks of the regular season for Penn State were much more satisfying and fulfilling that those horrendous first five weeks, but the Nittany Lions have chosen not to extend the season one more week at a bowl game.

Following the Lions’ 56-21 victory Saturday night over Illinois, head coach James Franklin and vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour announced that the team will not participate in a bowl game this season in order for players, coaches, and staff to spend time with their families.

A statement announcing the decision said it was led by the football athletes, and fully supported by Franklin and Barbour.

“We rely on our captains and Leadership Council to provide a voice for our team,” Franklin said in the statement, “and our student-athletes made the difficult choice not to participate in a bowl this year in order to spend time with loved ones.

“We are fully supportive of their decision, knowing it has been many months since our student-athletes have been able to spend time with their families and the challenges they endured, both physically and mentally. This will be an opportunity for our guys to go home, see family and recharge for the spring semester.”

The Nittany Lions and Rutgers were the only two teams in the Big Ten to play all nine games in this pandemic-shortened season. Franklin said he “couldn’t be more proud and encouraged by how our team conducted itself” during the year, especially since they could not be with their families during the season while trying to stay save from COVID-19.

In the game at Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions gave up 21 points to Illinois in the game’s first nine minutes but shut the visitors down the rest of the way. They scored 42 unanswered points while rolling up a season-high 580 yards of total offense for the game.

The Nittany Lions (4-5) closed out the regular season with four straight victories after starting 0-5.

Quarterback Sean Clifford threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns, short passes that Jahan Dotson turned into scoring plays of 75 and 70 yards with his speed. Backup Will Levis ran 4 yards for one touchdown and threw a 7-yard pass to tight end Brenton Strange for another.

Penn State’s freshmen running backs also contributed. Keyvone Lee rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown, and Caziah Holmes scored twice while picking up 77 yards on the ground. Lamont Wade returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score.

Dotson finished with 189 yards on six receptions.

The Fighting Illini (2-6), who were coached by offensive coordinator Rod Smith after last week’s firing of head coach Lovie Smith, were missing six starters on defense and played with just two scholarship linebackers.

But for the better part of the first quarter, Illinois was the superior team. The Fighting Illini scored on three straight possessions and took a 21-14 lead on Isaiah Williams’ 38-yard pass to tight end Daniel Barker with 6:10 remaining in the period.

Their first TD was setup when Clifford fumbled and Illinois recovered at the Penn State 16, with Williams hitting Brian Hightower for a 5-yard score.

It marked the fifth time in five home games that the Nittany Lions had allowed 21 points in the first half.

Franklin said he prepared his team for Brandon Peters to start at quarterback for the Fighting Illini, but Williams got the start. He rushed for 102 yards and passed for 120 and two touchdowns.

“You’re planning for the guy at quarterback that’s been playing pretty much the whole year and the other guy was a rotational type guy, so the plan is based on that,” Franklin said. “He made some plays early on. Again, the turnover on offense didn’t help, either. Once we were able to kind of outnumber them in the box and be more consistent with our gap responsibilities and make them more one-dimensional, it helped us.”

The Lions, whose first two TDs came on a 75-yard pass from Clifford to Dotson on the team’s first play from scrimmage and Wade’s kickoff return, bounced back. The Fighting Illini gained just 75 total yards the rest of the game after Barker’s touchdown.

Meanwhile, the offense started to click with the Lions scoring touchdowns on each of their next four drives. Levis tied it on a 4-yard run, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive, and Dotson’s 50-yard punt return set up a 3-yard dash around left end by Holmes just 2:09 later.

The Lions then burned about 7 minutes of clock on a 15-play, 91-yard drive that ended with Lee’s 1-yard run. They worked a lot faster the next time they got the ball, needing one play, with Clifford hitting Dotson on a bubble screen at the 30, and Dotson racing 70 yards for his second big-play TD of the night.

That gave Penn State a 42-21 lead with 3:49 left until halftime. The Lions’ final two touchdowns came on Levis’ 7-yard scoring pass to Strange in the third quarter, and on a 1-yard run by Holmes in the fourth.